WHEN I STARTED my own company almost 20 years ago, I’m pretty sure I had no idea what a recession was.
It never occurred to be that the outside world could impact on my little life. It was kind of like: if you keep your head low enough, the bullies might not spot you in the schoolyard.
Lonergan Corporate Gifts – which at that time only sold high-end, branded gifts to companies looking to woo clients – had its best year ever in 2007. We were preparing to scale up during the coming 12 months.
However, by the following summer, the phone stopped ringing. My best telesales people couldn’t get any appointments. Christmas is usually a busy time for us, but our sales just didn’t deliver in 2008.
By January, I had to part with some really good staff who had done nothing wrong.
We were in the luxury sector, so we felt the effects of the downturn pretty quickly and I had to trim the fat everywhere I could.
With that in mind, here’s how I managed to turn my business around with a unique idea that made it a profitable operation again.
Motivated by family
First of all, I got my family on board to help steady the ship.
My crane-driving husband, Joe, had been let go, so he started working with us during the day and drove a taxi at night. That went on for a number of years with very little return.
The fact that we were both taking a salary from the company put added pressure on the firm to perform well.
I’m aware now that it’s not a great idea to have all your eggs in the same basket. It’s worrying – but it can be good motivator too.
My accountant at the time would often ask me how I did it all. It seemed like such a silly question to me. I had two children to look after – I would’ve cleaned the streets if I needed to.
My brother Aidan pitched in as well and that helped us keep the company going while we looked for ways to give our business model a makeover.
While we still sell high-end promotional gifts to this day, we’ve ventured into selling products for employee incentive schemes and reward programmes.
That part of the business came about almost by accident – but it’s what saved us.
Without fully realising it, we had started a separate part of our business during the nineties.
We covered service awards for Wyeth, which is now Pfizer, where we would personally deliver gifts to their 300 staff.
Out of that came the idea for GetGifts.ie, a human resources reward and recognition programme that we launched a couple of years ago. HR managers use it to buy rewards for staff that hit certain sales targets or reach a milestone in their careers.
It also takes advantage of the small benefits exemption scheme, where employees can receive a tax-free, non-cash bonus of up to €500 every year.
Once we accidentally found that niche, we put all of our resources into it.
When we couldn’t grow our promotional goods sales, we put all of our energy into getting onto the HR departments at the country’s top companies so we could become their preferred supplier for gifts.
It just goes to show that sometimes what starts off as a sort of side project can grow into something bigger.
I love the gifts industry now. I get to help HR teams at big companies make their staff feel valued for all their hard work.
Our research has shown that when companies spend even just 1% of their payroll on recognising their employees’ hard work, it can make such a huge difference.
My last piece of advice for anyone who is looking to turn around a struggling business is to work with customers you like and find yourself a mentor.
My mentor was financial consultant John Crawley. He took me under his wing and helped me believe in myself again.
John reminded me I am the one who sets the bar – I am the only one who can get my hands dirty and get stuff done.
I have three children now, so the bar is even higher today than it was during our tough years. I hope I’ll be ahead of the curve from now on. With the help of my family and friends, I am pretty sure I can be.
Louise Lonergan is chief executive of Lonergan Corporate Gifts.
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